Increased violence in our schools, teen pregnancy, rising crime, and a general disintegration of traditional values are all problems which spark the ongoing debate about moral education. The two advocates of moral education generally fall into two categories, those who support the ‘discursive' method and those that support the ‘directive' method.
The discursive method, also known as the ‘decision-making model' or ‘values clarification', encourages students to reason out positions on moral issues. Classes are generally structured to allow students to engage in debate on moral issues. The purpose of this model is to allow students the opportunity to develop their own values. There are several problems with this model however. More often than not classes degenerate into shouting matches. Students tend to learn how to defend, and rationalize their own positions rather than listen to opposing arguments. It is also argued that the goal of eliminating bias is unrealistic. Teachers will inevitably introduce some element of bias in their classes.
The directive method advocates teaching students a set of defined values or morals. The students are taught what is right and wrong. This is immediately problematic. What is right and wrong? Who decides what values will be taught? This method though is the method most widely supported in the United States, and is currently part of the curriculum in some states. It is most often discussed with regard to sex education and encouraging abstinence among teenagers.
And though there does not seem to be any agreement among educators as to the best methodology when it comes to moral education, there has been some significant changes to the educational system in North America as a result of this debate. The most significant of which is the insistence that educators be role models to students, to be models of exemplary behavior. More and more teachers are expected to be examples of moral behavior in and out of the classroom.
The Bangkok case
So what does all of this have to do with Thailand? Not much, on the surface. But more than you might think. Obviously the problems I highlighted in the introduction to this article are problems in North America. That is not to say that only people living in North America face those problems, but it was my source for writing about the moral education debate.
So what are the problems faced by Thai youth? Well, many of the same problems are faced by Thai youth as are faced by their North American counterparts, though in different degree and proportion. Unfortunately, statistics are few and far between and often unreliable. There are also issues which are unique to Thailand that deserve special attention. Some these involve access to quality education, poverty, and enticement to prostitution.
As an educator though, one of the first things that struck me about the educational system here in Thailand, with respect to foreign teachers, is the inordinate amount of teachers regularly engaging in immoral behavior, or what might be commonly thought of as immoral behavior. That is, teachers who regularly drink themselves into a stupor or go to go-go bars and solicit the services of a prostitute.
Some of these teachers teach EP (English program) or ESL (English as a Second Language) programs in the primary or secondary schools, in either private or public education systems, or in international schools, or private language schools. They are the teachers who teach young children in Thailand.
Now clearly they do not drink in class or engage in the services of a prostitute during English lessons, but I think it is would be naïve to believe that this trend does not deserve attention. More specifically, it deserves attention for two reasons. I have often heard it said that ‘children just know', that you cannot hide anything from a child. And in my experience as an educator I know there is truth in this adage. To believe that one's behavior outside the classroom has no effect or impact on your behavior in the classroom is naïve.
Secondly, we are foreigners, we are ‘farang'. We are expected to behave differently afterall we are outsiders. We are not Thai. One might believe that this gives us a certain degree of freedom with respect to our behavior and how our behavior might influence those placed in our care. And it does, to a certain degree. But the nature between the foreign teacher and the Thai student is a complex one. It is not inconceivable that a Thai student might want to emulate some positive characteristics he sees in his farang teacher. The problem becomes more complicated however when the Thai student associates negative stereotypes of the farang with that farang teacher he admires. It is for this reason, it may be argued, that we should not do anything that might validate those negative stereotypes.
Lessons to be learned
I have been here now for only a short period of time and I am not so conceited as to believe that I can solve all the problems faced by the education system here in Thailand. I thought only to relate to you a subject which, to my knowledge, has never been formally discussed. That is, the impact by foreign teachers on moral education in Thailand.
Though I cannot help but notice the irony. It is ironic that there exists such an inordinate amount of teachers with, what some might consider, questionable morals, teaching in Thailand. More ironic is the fact that this has never received any attention from either the media or from academic investigation.
As I have mentioned, I do not support moral education. I also make a habit of refraining from making moral judgments of others. And so please note that the ‘immoral' behavior I make mention of in this article, is not behavior that I, myself, would necessarily consider moral or immoral.
That being said, I do believe there are lessons to be learned here. First, I think that as educators we should not underestimate the impact our behavior has on the students in our classroom. That is not to say that we should necessarily change our behavior, but we need to be aware that everything we do and say can have an impact.
Second, though we are educators we are not saints, and this is an invaluable lesson, and one I refer to as the ‘Bangkok case'. As teachers we are role models. And it has long been thought by educational professionals and advocates of moral education that as role models, we must always adhere to a strict moral code of conduct both in and out of the classroom. This we are learning is an unrealistic ideal, and in the end counter-productive. It has lead many teachers in North America to lead two lives, one in the classroom and one outside. But wouldn't it be more valuable for students to learn that role models are people too. That even teachers make mistakes. We are only human.
Thirdly, this is a subject which should not be ignored, especially when it provides students with an opportunity to learn about not only other cultures, but about values that may be different than their own. A curriculum then is needed. And I do not believe it should be the responsibility of foreign teachers but the responsibility of Thai teachers, since it is Thai teachers who students will listen to. A curriculum that teaches students, from an early age, about other cultures and about other values, which may be different, but may also be neither right nor wrong.